RUSSELL T. DAVIES &
'THE COMPLETE SPECIALS'
BLU-RAY DVD BOX SET
IN JANUARY 2010.
Bowie Base One.
drink the water.
DON'T EVEN TOUCH
IT. Not one drop."
15TH NOVEMBER 2009
It may have been a cold November night all those years ago when this roller-coaster ride first started, but since Doctor Who’s revival in 2005 November has been a pretty barren month for the show. That is, until now.
Billed as ‘the beginning of the end’ for David Tennant’s tenth Doctor, The Waters of Mars
is a real departure from the joyous frivolity of the series’ Easter special earlier in the year, Planet of the Dead. This sixty-minute episode sees the Doctor arrive at the delightfully-named Mars colony ‘Bowie Base One’ looking for “fun”, but lamentably for him he’s in for anything but.
Set on 21st November 2059, almost exactly fifty years from the special’s broadcast date
(I smell a last-minute BBC schedule change!), The Waters of Mars is the new series’ first foray into humanity’s near-future and, I have to say, the picture painted is most certainly a plausible one. Remarkably little appears to have changed since our day – the humans of 2059 just seem to have more pixels and less food, but they still wear jeans. They still live in houses with sofas, tables and chairs. They still use t’internet. And the clean, white lines of NASA-descended technology are plainly there for all to see.
The Bowie Base exterior is a gorgeous piece of CGI; one that makes me grateful that the series is now being produced and broadcast in glorious HD. Clearly influenced by the real-life National Botanic Garden of Wales (where much of this episode was shot), like its interior and its crew the Bowie Base reeks of contemporaneousness. For all the ways in which the history of Earth in Doctor Who has diverged from our own, the basics are still the same.
“Ooh. I really should go… Whatever’s started here, I can’t see it to the end.”
The story itself is truly a tale of two halves, outgoing showrunner Russell T Davies and his Sarah Jane Adventures cohort Phil Ford initially using their script to tell a fairly traditional corridor romp. That’s not to suggest that the subject matter isn’t inspired though because
it is – the relatively recent real-life discovery of ice on Mars positively begged the Doctor
Who treatment. More fundamentally though, water is something that we encounter every-
day; something that we depend on for life, and so to take it and make it the stuff of night-mares without drowning a single member of your cast is a remarkable achievement.
“Don’t drink the water. Don’t even touch it. Not one drop.”
Introducing the element of possession also ups the ante, particularly visually. Much in the same way that the crew of the SS Pentallian in 42 were taken over by the fires of a sentient star, leading to some spectacular Graeme Harper visuals, here the crew of Bowie Base
One become infected by the Martian water, one by one their pupils turning white and their skin cracking as their faces begins to release torrents of infected water. And all it takes to become infected is one drop…
The Waters of Mars isn’t all death and despair, however. Comic relief (and a bucket load more besides) is provided by the base’s horrendously camp 1980s movie robot, GADGET, which I was determined to hate but, ultimately, just couldn’t bring myself to. The exasperating ‘Disney’ contraption is all that prevents the episode from setting new records for gloominess, and without him I fear that a great many viewers (viewers like my Mam) wouldn’t have made it through the sixty minutes.
Furthermore, Davies and Ford negotiate the series’ Martian continuity rather dexterously, using the Martian Ice Warriors’ perceptible absence to lend their story a little more weight rather than make it an encumbrance. The Doctor’s lyrical dialogue about the “fine and noble race that built an Empire out of snow” is delectably written and performed, and I’m especially fond of the implicit idea that it was this aquatic infection that caused the Martian exodus in the first place.
Nevertheless, what sets The Waters of Mars apart from its fellow ‘base under siege’ stories is the other half of the tale; the divisive part of the narrative that sees the Doctor start down a very dark and disturbing path indeed.
“...certain moments in time are fixed. Tiny, precious moments. Everything else is in flux, anything can happen; but those certain moments, they have to stand... What happens here must always happen.”
From the opening moments of this story, it is made plain that what happens on Mars on 21st November 2059 must always happen as it is a “fixed point” in time. The pioneering Martian colonists must die and there is nothing that the Doctor can do to save them without risking unravelling the sum total of the web of time. And if the dialogue isn’t unequivocal enough for you, we are also bombarded with some startlingly effective web-based obituaries for each and every colonist. Born 1999. Died 2059. It’s fixed. It happened. It will happen. You can’t cheat fate, and you certainly can’t get one over on Time.
And so with this in mind, I was expecting a future Pompeii; a grim and cheerless – though utterly compelling - affair that would segue thematically into Tennant’s final two-parter. After all, in the television series at least, the Doctor has always sought to uphold the Time Lords’ Laws of Time with fervent zeal. Indeed, in preceding episodes - most notably in The Fires of Pompeii and Father’s Day - his ferocious devotion to the same has been the root of many
a furious moral debate with his well-intentioned companions. In the end though, the Doctor would always remain steadfast. If it were up to him who lived and who died - as Mr Copper astutely observed in Voyage of the Damned - that would make him a monster, and surely that’s the one thing that he would never let himself become.
“It’s taken me all these years to realise the Laws of Time are mine, and they will obey me!”
However, The Waters of Mars sees the Doctor waver. Retreating from the doomed colony he is knocked off his feet by a tumultuous explosion, and as he stirs amidst the flames in
one of Harper’s most exquisitely-shot sequences yet, he finds himself ruminating on the demise of his people and the implications of this. There is something in Tennant’s eyes – you can almost see those almighty cogs turning – as the realisation hits him that the Laws
of Time don’t apply to him anymore. They aren’t immutable, physical constants; they never were. They’re just a code. A code that died with his homeworld.
The transformation in the Doctor’s character is both instant and majestic, but it makes for
the most unsettling sequence that I can recall seeing in the series. Buoyed by Murray Gold’s grand score, the Doctor tears into the moribund Bowie Base like the proverbial Oncoming Storm and starts to do what he does best – save people. But whereas the Doctor’s actions usually appear slick and effortless, here is visibly desperate and, for want of a better word, drunk with illicit thrill of it all. Tennant’s feral performance borders on disturbing as, almost maniacally, he strives to save the remaining humans - not for them, but to prove that he can. The Waters of Mars isn’t one of the series’ scariest episodes because of the monsters; it’s one of the series’ scariest episodes because the Doctor – the one and only constant in an otherwise hostile universe – has been tainted.
“For a long time now I’ve thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not.
I’m the winner. That’s who I am. A Time Lord Victorious.”
alarm some viewers (after all, that’s the idea!), I have to confess to being tremendously excited by it; the multitude
of possibilities that it opens up are mind-boggling. And
what’s more, I don’t subscribe to the idea of the Doctor
being a flawless and unwavering force for good because,
simply put, he isn’t. Previous incarnations - most notably
Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor - have strayed into very
grey territory indeed, and that’s before we even get to the
‘Valeyard’ pseudo-incarnation (The Trial of a Time Lord)
and the terrible truth that he could represent. I’m also mindful
of River Song’s description of her [ future ] Doctor; a Time
Lord who can open his TARDIS’ doors with just a click of
his fingers. Now that doesn’t sound like a man who allows
himself to be bound by an archaic code to me.
What I find particularly alluring is the delicacy of it all; that fine line between good and evil. Darth Vader – in my view the greatest movie villain of all time - only became the monster
that he did because he wanted to be a force for good; he wanted to put paid to the Clone War that was tearing the galaxy apart and to save the life on his pregnant wife.
However, there is inevitably a ‘but’ coming. Simply put, I don’t find the chain of events that lead the Doctor to his life-changing epiphany all that convincing. The Doctor has been in
the type of situation that he is faced with on Mars before on any number of occasions – ‘historicals’ such as this were William Hartnell’s bread and butter - yet he’s never broken before. So why now?
“Three knocks is all you’re getting.”
The script places a lot of reliance on the absence of a companion to ‘reign the Doctor in’ as it were, and this at least makes a lot of sense. In School Reunion, for instance, were it not for Sarah Jane’s impassioned plea, then the Doctor might well have helped the Krillitanes
to crack the Skasas Paradigm and unlock the sort of power that in this special he wields. In itself though, this isn’t nearly enough.
The Waters of Mars also places a lot of emphasis on the tenth Doctor’s foreknowledge of his impending demise, heavily suggesting that he is a man with little left too lose and that
as such he’s something of a loose cannon. I’m not sure that I accept this though, particularly given how cryptic the Doctor’s warnings about the end of his “song” have been. How soon
is “soon” to a Time Lord?
“The woman with starlight in her soul…”
Taking everything into account, the principal reason that I think the Doctor behaves as he does here is the reverence that he has for the colony’s mission captain, Adelaide Brooke. To the Doctor, she’s as much a cornerstone of history as Dickens, Shakespeare, or even Queen Victoria and so he holds her in high esteem in any event. But in getting to know her over the course of this episode – which, admittedly, can’t be long as events seem to occur
in or around real time – he is really impressed.
Lindsay Duncan’s (Rome) character is hardly endearing by any objective standard, but she is undeniably brilliant at what she does; inspirational, even. Every bit the obdurate Captain Picard-like leader, Duncan’s performance is astonishing throughout the episode. She is able to keep pace with Tennant during their – many! – running scenes, and is equally adept when she has to turn her hand to action (I love the ‘GADGET escape scene in particular).
However, where Duncan really shines is in her
portrayal of her character’s dawning realisation
of her own importance. The character is given
such a romantic back story – her parents were
killed fifty years earlier in the Dalek Invasion of
2009 (or 2008, if we are to believe the web
page stills. Looks like we have another ‘UNIT
dating’-style debacle on our hands…), but rather than leave her bitter, the reveal of alien life
actually inspired her to reach for the stars. And as the enormity of what she has achieved
and what her lineage will go on to achieve begins to dawn on her, she is resigned to her
daunting but noble fate. And the real irony of it all is that it is probably Brooke’s ability to
appreciate her part in events and her solemn resignation to death that makes the Doctor
want to save her so desperately.
But even given the Doctor’s patent respect for Brooke, for me things still don’t quite add up.
I would have thought that it’d take something monumental; perhaps even something deeply personal for the Doctor to overreach his power in such a way as he does here. Whilst the absence of a companion at his side leaves him open to such bouts of irresponsibility, I am sure that a story could have been forged whereby the Doctor were travelling alone but it was the life of, say, a former companion that were at stake. A companion who were the ‘fixed point’, perhaps, Charley Pollard-style. This would have had real resonance after the loss of Donna and I’d have bought it hook, line, and sinker.
“And there’s no-one to stop you.”
Even had The Waters of Mars been, say, the eleventh episode of a run of stories in which the Doctor had faced a series of similar mounting dilemmas, then I would have found his
turn much more credible. But as a stand-alone special devoid of satisfactory context, I feel that the Doctor’s actions in The Waters of Mars are precipitous, to say the least.
However, the reasons behind the Doctor’s fall from grace notwithstanding, the fall itself is agonising to behold. As Tennant struts out of his TARDIS on Earth with a Masterly omni-potent swagger, clearly expecting an almighty pat on the back, he is quite clearly changed
by what he’s accomplished. Changed, I fear, for the worse.
“Different details, but the story’s the same.”
And what irks most of all is that the Doctor’s actions were wantonly excessive. There was
no need for him to aggressively defy Time by taking Brooke, Kerenski and Bennett back home to the Earth of their time; instead, he could have dropped them all off in the year five billion, their roles in history preserved but their lives saved. But that wasn’t enough for him – for some reason the Doctor wanted to prove a point, to himself more than anyone else.
Time’s Champion no more.
What stung more than anything else though was the Doctor’s use of language – derogatory phrases and terms like “don’t you get it?” and “little people” prevail; at one point he even misquotes Gallifrey’s reprehensible Celestial Intervention Agency’s motto. It’s painful to
It is only when Brooke commits suicide in a bid to reclaim her part in history that the Doctor appears to realise just how far across the line he’s strayed. He robbed Brooke of her rightful place in history. Even a Dalek – a creature born to hate and to kill – had far more respect for Brooke and her legacy than he did.
“And if my family changes, the whole of history could change;
the future of the human race. No-one should have that much power.”
The closing moments of the story are both intriguing and bizarre, and inevitably beg far more questions than they answer. Is Ood Sigma physically waiting beside the TARDIS, beckoning Ten towards his imminent fate? Or is he simply the Doctor’s inner turmoil made manifest?
The Waters of Mars draws to a close to the sound of the TARDIS’ cloister bell as the angry, hurt and (I would hope) suitably ashamed Doctor kicks at the console. Much like the third Doctor’s death in Planet of the Spiders, Ten’s conceit on Mars has apparently started him down an inexorable path towards his own demise. The Immortality Gate is waiting…
“I’ve gone too far. Is this it? My death? Is it time?”
And so to sum up, I love the audacious course that the writers have set us on, and to say
that I’m preposterously excited about the upcoming finalé would be understating matters considerably. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that the straw that broke the camel’s back here was something of a short one. It should have taken more.
That said of course, it’s impossible to judge decisively having only seen one piece of the puzzle and so, for now at least, the jury’s out.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2009
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Well, that was something else. For the first time, a Doctor Who special that
tries something genuinely different. A basic plot summary for the episode wouldn’t sound altogether different than the usual, run-of-the-mill episode; it’s the themes and emotional content that set this story apart. The result is exhilarating, frightening and astonishingly
First things first: the core concept of this story is a winner. That large deposits of ice exist at the Martian poles has been known for some time, but recent evidence of frozen groundwater and potential reserves of liquid water beneath the ice caps has captured the imagination, and it’s no surprise to see Doctor Who giving this it’s own unique twist. Making water itself the enemy is an excellent move. With such a long build up, this story could have lost a lot of its impact through overfamiliarity; however, the concept of a possessive, purposeful force
of water is chilling enough to work even with this foreknowledge. The fact that water is both essential to life and potentially deadly is a sobering thought in itself, before giving it life and intelligence!
When it comes to the water-possessed humans, I’m of mixed opinion. The make-up does not really work for me. In principal, the cracked face and dribbling black mouth sounds like
a gruesome idea, but it just looks too much like make-up for me to ever forget that’s what it is. Evidently I’m in the minority here, as the rest of my family think it’s horrible! On the other hand, the excellent performances by those playing the possessed adds what the make-up lacks. I find the twitching, staring, slack-jawed movements far more disturbing than anything else here. The fact that the possessed remain recognisably human makes it all the more chilling, and as for the continuous, unending streams of water, gushing from every orifice… brrr.
There’s a genuine aesthetic appeal to this episode, from the stark functionality of Bowie Base One to the perfectly rendered surface of Mars. Even GADGET works a treat. It might be a bit rubbish, but it’s supposed to be, right down to the giant webcam eye. It’s a nice
dig at both cutesy sci-fi robots and the endearingly clunky NASA Rovers. Even the crew’s clothing, at once personal and functional, adds to the feel of a group of people who have worked together for a good deal of time under close conditions.
In fact, it’s undoubtedly the performance of the principle cast that makes the episode. I could genuinely believe that these people had been living with each other for a long time, such was the mix of familiar cosiness and irritability. Every character was likeable, an essential quality if we are going to sympathise with them. Even Roman the robot operator (played by Michael Groom), who started gratingly annoying, but had me holding back tears by his final moments. Ed Gold (Peter O’Brien) evoked particular sympathy, as the put-upon second-in-command, forever in the captain’s shadow. Nonetheless, I was glad to see Yuri (Aleksander Mikic) and Mia (Gemma Chan) surivive – Yuri because he was the most likeable character for me, and Mia just because I enjoyed watching her. Another point of praise is the attempt at a genuinely international crew – hiring actors from other nations, rather than simply having British actors struggling to put on realistic accents.
Of course, it’s Lindsay Duncan who steals the show as Adelaide Brooke, I’m not going to argue whether she counts as a companion or not; that’s really not important. It’s a welcome change to have such a strong, mature female lead in the show, indeed, in any such series. Both character and actor impress throughout, a strict, authoritarian captain who retains her warmth and humanity. It’s good to see the Doctor a little starstruck here; it’s a rare chance
for us to see him meeting someone who he clearly regards as something of a hero. And it’s easy to see why such a woman would be chosen to lead such an important mission; Brooke has the strength to both stand up to death, and accept it when it becomes inevitable. Her growing realisation of her final destiny is painful but fulfilling to watch. I also thought that her backstory was a good addition. I wasn’t expecting to see a Dalek in this episode, let alone see one used to make an important character point. The idea that even a Dalek would be forced by the weight of future events to allow a young girl to live really drives home the imp-ortance of events here.
Setting these events a mere fifty years in the future is a masterstroke. Adelaide herself is
a character who is ten years old in 2009; likewise, children watching the show can envision themselves exploring this near future. Even I’ll probably be there (I hope!), as a grumpy and creaking seventy-five-year-old. However, instilling the younger viewers with hope for the future is somewhat tempered by the grim atmosphere. You could walk on Mars one day!
And die there!
After all this, though, what everyone is
talking about is the Doctor, and his final
decision. It’s a compelling situation to
see him in. We’ve seen him trapped by
historical events before, from the last
days of the Aztecs through to events in Pompeii. Making this event one in our future gives us a chance to see things from a different perspective, remembering that we are all part of the world’s ongoing history. Yet it also gives the Doctor the opportunity to change things without the logical problems inherent in altering our own past.
It was clear from quite early on that he was going to turn back and change events, and to hell with the consequences. There’s been enough talk by the production team about the Doctor’s change in attitude in this episode for us to guess that. What makes it such compelling view-ing is David Tennant’s electrifying performance. He really is quite frightening here.
I’m afraid I have to disagree with my colleague Mr Wolverson at this point; I feel that the Doctor’s sudden change of heart is entirely fitting. The chance to save Adelaide is merely the catalyst here. It’s clear from the dialogue that he still feels great guilt and anguish over
his actions at Pompeii. It’s this drip-drip effect of continual responsibility to time that has worn him down. He couldn’t go back and reverse what happened to Donna, he couldn’t
save Astrid, he can’t bring back Gallifrey. It isn’t really important what finally makes him
snap – it was bound to happen eventually. Quite why he doesn’t keep on for the TARDIS, instead of running back and then sending GADGET for it, I don’t know, but the ingenious desperation of this scene makes it all the more powerful. The determination that, this time, he’s going to win. And really, haven’t we been prepared for this since the beginning? The tenth Doctor hasn’t been arrogant from his very first moments, swaggering onto the secne, fighting off the Sycorax and spitefully toppling Harriett Jones’s government for afters. This day was inevitable. And, just like before, there were unforeseen consequences; this time, in the show’s bleakest ever moment, Adelaide crumbles in the face of history and kills herself (although, just for a second, I thought she was about to shoot the Doctor).
Which is why the coming two-part special simply had to pit him against the Master. True,
we don’t know the details yet, but it seems entirely appropriate. The Master is the Doctor’s equal and opposite. Without the responsibility of time holding him back, with the feeling of superiority and justification in his own actions driving him forward, the Doctor is the Master. Who knows where he might stop? It’s almost a pity that he seems to have backed down in shame by the episode’s end. A story with the Doctor truly off the rails, maybe even acting
as the villain, would be spectacular. Still, those last moments show he still has plenty of fire.
I just hope that next time, wherever and whenever he lands, he checks the date before he leaves the TARDIS.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2009
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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